Oxford Street is a metaphor for Sydney’s gay community. The suburbs it passes through - Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Paddington - are widely seen as the centre of gay Sydney. They’re home to gay clubs, shops and services. In the past decade, however, the area’s been losing its gay vibrancy and appeal. The shops and clubs are becoming less gay and many homosexuals are losing interest. The changes reflect both gay culture and wider socio-economic processes. Has the Golden Mile tarnished?
Oxford Street began to emerge as gay space from the 1960s, with gay bars, cafés and sex shops migrating from nearby Kings Cross. Until the early 1990s, Darlinghurst and Paddington were largely run-down - victims of manufacturing employment shifting out of the city centre. Yet they were cheap and had populations relatively tolerant to gay residents. Gay men moved in.
The Oxford Street precinct thus established itself as a “gay space”. Gay men (and a few women) could be visibly homosexual there, and established their own territorial political base. In 1978 the Mardi Gras parade was first held, with the gay community bravely marching down Oxford Street and claiming it for their own.
In the 1980s and 90s, the street’s role as a gay political, cultural and leisure precinct grew. Homosexuals from suburban and country areas migrated there, escaping the intolerance of home and finding a supportive, exciting community to “come out” into. The AIDS crisis further consolidated the gay population, seeking support and community services.
It was not so much a ghetto, but a self-made enclave offering flamboyant lifestyles and safety in numbers: a created community, in a sense. The hegemony of heterosexuality found elsewhere in the city had been visibly transgressed by being different. Gay culture was expressed through leisure, fashion, nightlife and sex.
In the past several years, however, things have changed. Gentrification, which first emerged in Australia in 1960s Paddington, gradually picked up speed over time. The move towards skilled inner-city service jobs in Sydney boosted demand for housing in the area. Run-down dwellings that were renovated by gay men became popular with families and young (often straight) professionals. Prices were bid up, and Oxford Street became less affordable for gay residents and shops.
Then commercialism took over. Mainstream retail chains and fashion boutiques became more prominent on Oxford Street from the mid-1990s. A slowing property market and the opening of a nearby shopping centre (Westfield Bondi Junction) lifted vacancy rates and slowed business in the early 2000s. Retail’s picked up a bit recently, but chain shops and “straight clubs” have prospered at the expense of gay-oriented businesses and clubs.
Some recent evidence also suggests that the homosexual population in the area may be shrinking. More gay pubs have closed than opened. Oxford Street, seemingly, is in decline.
Multiple social processes underlie this development, including changed wider social attitudes. Popular culture now embraces “gay”, with many movies and television shows featuring gay characters and themes. Metrosexuality is cool and children are growing up with gay friends and without having witnessed overt homophobia. “Gay” is being seen as an acceptable sexual and lifestyle preference, with the institutional barriers once constructed against gay men and lesbians gradually, but surely, falling.
The Mardi Gras festival has lost its political edge. It’s gone from outspoken activism towards being just another commercialised event, sanitised for the media and heterosexual spectators, and another date on the gay party calendar. Increasingly, numbers of straight men and women are also patronising Oxford Street’s gay clubs, considering them a fun night out. Homophobic violence still exists, but overall society recognises gays and accepts them more than ever.
However, despite this wider acceptance and property markets pricing many gays out of the Oxford Street area, there has been no corresponding emergence of a large, visible and vibrant gay community elsewhere.
The original gay political goals of previous decades have been achieved. Legalised gay sex, stronger anti-discrimination laws, local council support and legal equality (mostly, except gay marriage) have been achieved. There’s nothing left to fight for. Sydney’s gay community has been a victim of its own success.